But the strategy could be at risk if regulators and U.S. lawmakers probing two deadly Boeing plane crashes require even more rigorous safety tests before certifying new aircraft as passenger-worthy.
As Boeing kicks off the year-long flight testing process on its new 777X, its engineers will cut hours off airborne testing by using computer models to simulate flight conditions, and then present the results to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as part of the basis for certification, according to two people with direct knowledge of the strategy.
Reuters could not determine when Boeing decided to move forward with the plan to cut back on physical tests or the extent to which it planned to reduce them for the 777X.
For Boeing’s proposed twin-aisle jetliner, known internally as NMA, Boeing’s Test & Evaluation group is developing the technology to replace costly and labor intensive physical safety tests used for decades - such as using machines to bend the wings to extreme angles and shaking the fuselage until it cracks - with computer modeling, according to three people with knowledge of the matter, including an FAA official.
Such work for the NMA is in the conceptual phase, though Boeing’s goal is to expand “certification by analysis” as “extensively as they possibly can” to slash development costs, one of the people told Reuters. Doing so enhances a finely balanced business case for launching NMA, which would be the first aircraft fully developed in the digital age.
Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman declined to comment on the company’s testing strategy for the 777X or the NMA, but said the planemaker was “looking holistically at our design and certification processes” following the 737 MAX crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia, which together killed 346 people.
“This includes participating in ongoing independent government reviews and establishing a new board committee to review our end-to-end design and certification processes,” Bergman said.
When asked whether the FAA would allow Boeing to eliminate an array of physical tests for NMA and 777X, FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said the agency “makes determinations on a case-by-case basis, relying on data and decades of experience in certifying aircraft.”
Current regulations allow planemakers to use physical testing and analysis to demonstrate compliance.
Like the MAX, the NMA and 777X - which Boeing is racing to deliver in 2020 - are centerpieces in Boeing’s duel with Airbus SE and will influence how Boeing decides to manufacture and certify an eventual 737 MAX replacement. How quickly and at what cost the new planes are delivered to customers is critical to not just Boeing’s bottom line, but also the U.S. Congressional budget.